Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Sneaky idols

idol3I’VE HEARD A few sermons over the years about idolatry, but it’s always been a bit of a remote subject for me; after all, I don’t have a carved figure on a pole before which I pray and genuflect. But I’m realizing that I may have a stand-in or two, from the bookshelf to the fridge or even the mirror.

This disturbing realization began to emerge when I decided to dig a little deeper into the subject. Like most Christians, I could have quoted the definition of idolatry as “anything that replaces God in your life.” Only as I began to break that lofty concept down into more manageable pieces did it start to come closer to home.

Here are just three ways in which I’m reflecting on how—if I’m not careful—my experience and understanding of God can be a doorway to idolatry:

His presence. It’s probably during worship that many Christians are most aware of God being there, close to them. We’ll even say after church, “What a great time of worship that was.” So what else brings me alive like that and makes me want to talk about it with other people? Other kinds of music, or sensuality of some other form, from sex to food?

His provision. Most of us will say that all things come from God and we depend on Him for our daily bread, but do we really? Is our hope really more in our pay check or our 401(k)? There is a difference between being a diligent and dutiful employee and someone who lets their job be the sun around which the rest of their life orbits. And what about the sense of comfort I get by knowing I am taken care of?

His protection. There’s maybe nothing that rocks faith like ill-health. Wellness is to be preferred, of course, and we should be good stewards of our bodies. But are we too focused on a perfect, pain-free life? And what about our internal sense of security and well-being, what others think about us? Do we allow our need for healthy self-esteem to drive what we do and don’t do; are we more concerned about being in control than letting God be in control?

The tricky thing, of course, is that none of these—the desire for sex, food, health, personal fulfillment—are in and of themselves bad things. They are part of the way God wired us. But we can end up making idols of things that outwardly appear very good, even noble—whether that’s marriage, ministry, or motherhood. Idols can sneak up on us.

There’s a perfect example of all this in Genesis 32. The Israelites have gotten bored or worried while waiting for Moses to come back down from the mountain and his encounter there with God. So they decide to come up with a substitute, and fashion a golden calf to worship.

This idol is made of the gold jewelry the people donated to Aaron, but where did all that come from? After all, the Israelites had been slaves for 400 years; they probably didn’t have a lot of disposable income for buying bling. In all probability, it was from the “articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing” that the Israelites had requested from their Egyptian overlords before they left Egypt in the Passover (Exodus 12:35).

What had been intended to be a blessing became an idol. There’s a cautionary note for us all.

For most of us, the challenge isn’t going to be quite so dramatic as, Hey, give me your necklace so I can make a Golden Calf. The switch can be much more subtle. Am I really looking to God for meaning, value, comfort, security, or whatever? Or to these other things?

Like with those Israelites, these crude replacements do seem to offer some measure of what we are ultimately looking for, at least for a time. But they cannot bring the fulfillment we can only find in God. Maybe that’s why the word “idol” sounds the same as “idle”: it doesn’t work.

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com 

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